Charles Clarke was interviewed by Civil Service World
How did your views of the civil service change during your time in office? I already had a high view of the civil service; possibly prejudiced by the fact that my father was a permanent secretary, though not a conventional one. My opinion was still positive when I left, though I had come to feel that it was not good at managing its own human resources and identifying talent; it rewarded unchallenging behaviour too highly; and there was too much of a culture of simply pushing responsibility upwards.
What challenges did you face in working with civil servants? The main challenge in every policy area is to develop an effective strategy for the implementation of change. This requires all the talents of policy creativity, challenge, research analysis, skilful articulation and presentation. This was generally well done, though sometimes officials tended to accept the conventional wisdom, and weren’t energetic enough. I also found the quality of letter-writing very poor.
Do you think ministers need more power to choose their permanent secretaries? No. I find this difficult, since I was certainly very dissatisfied with the quality of one of my permanent secretaries and wanted change. However, permitting individual ministers to appoint permanent secretaries is dangerous. The more effective route is to achieve more high-quality permanent secretaries.
If you were Cabinet Office minister, what would you change? The turnover of senior civil servants is often too fast (like ministers!). Institutional memory is being lost, together with important stakeholder relationships. Decision-making needs to be decentralised, with greater responsibility held at lower levels. I felt that many of the service directorates (eg. communications and policy) would have been better served by having half the staff paid twice the salary and held more strongly to account. The central Treasury controls are very damaging. And the importance of politics needs to be better recognised and understood than it is.
Tell us a story that reveals something about the civil service.
The one I best remember was the private secretary who came to me and said: ‘We’ve had a letter from an MP called Ms B Boothroyd. I assume we should just file it’ – forgetting the importance of the Speaker of the House of Commons for any minister’s political life. In general, the service was insular and understanding of basic politics and current affairs was low.
Charles Clarke became a junior minister in 1998, rising to become education secretary in 2002. He was appointed home secretary in 2004, losing the job in a reshuffle in 2006